WHILE JUDGE KIMBA WOOD questioned Todd Harrison at the Courthouse on Foley Square, Lower Manhattan, his client Michael Cohen sat smoking cigars and chatting with confidants on Park Avenue. Cohen began his career in personal injury law, before getting into the taxi business and real estate with the help of his father-in-law. He accumulated taxi medallions, debt and a knack for executing unbelievable property deals, entirely in cash. In 2007, Cohen joined the Trump Organisation, and was soon working personally for its chairman as a ‘roving fixer.’1 And now, the President’s lawyer was playing absentee client.
As Harrison faltered over the details of who else Cohen had been working for, photographers converged on the Loews Regency to record his display of insouciance.2 When their photos arrived in press rooms, the first thing journalists noted was the cadre of men surrounding Cohen, grasping him by the shoulder, taking calls, whispering into his ear. The second thing was his jacket.
Cohen favours indiscreet European luxury: Hermès ‘H’ belts, Italian tailoring, open-necked shirts. He wears clothes like sportscars wear their badges. In court he appears in suits, but prefers soft jackets with loud patterns, worn with loafers and jeans. In corporate law and finance, clothes are expected to reassure clients; you should present a successful business, but not flaunt your bonus. In Cohen’s line of work, lawyers talk, and dress, more like prize fighters. Like so many of those surrounding Donald Trump, Cohen is a New Yorker who does not care for the niceties of DC; he maintains an aggressive relationship with adversaries and with facts.
Politicians wear expensive suits, of course. But theirs are tactical garments, intended to draw attention not to individual textures or patterns but the whole silhouette. By presenting the body as a seamless, familiar shape, the suit diverts attention from the campaigner’s actual contours to the campaign they embody. Many assiduously stick to modest, domestic tailors: Obama switched to Chicago tailor Hart Schaffner Marx for his inauguration; Hillary Clinton would have worn Ralph Lauren.3 In clothing budgets as in so much of the current reality television politics, the true precursor for vestimentary excess was Sarah Palin.4
The style writer Alan Flusser has drawn the distinction between the ‘Michael Douglas-Gordon Gekko imagery’ of Trump allies like Paul Manafort and ‘the Brooks Brothers, inside-the-Beltway, button-down look’ of professional Washingtonians.5 But even insatiable lovers of the sumptuous like Manafort and Trump manage to look essentially interchangeable with other consultants and politicians by wearing two-button plain navy suits.6 Because the modern business suit has changed remarkably little since the eighteenth century, small differences hold great significance. Within the West Wing, only notorious clothes horse Michael Anton wore a pocket square.7 The line between orthodox and radical is a series of tiny details: lapel shape, shoulder expression, sleeve width, accessories.
Cohen dresses to stand out. Even in suits, he wears loafers to show a bit of patterned sock. There is no American Flag in his lapel, but he commonly wears an enamel coral pin. The flag pin gained popularity in the Nixon years as a signifier of conservative patriotism in the face of disasters in Vietnam and it returned with renewed fervour after 9/11. Coral is an old symbol of good luck in Naples, and the pin is branding for Isaia, the Neapolitan luxury tailor. While Northern Italian makers favour the clean, structured suits typical of business wear, Neapolitan makers are noticeably different: softer shoulders; tighter, more aggressive cuts; louder patterns. These are jackets for the southern heat, but also jackets in which you could throw a punch. Jackets for lawyers who suggest to adversaries that they ‘tread very fucking lightly.’8 Cohen’s are blue and grey with bright checks and houndstooth patterns, jackets that hug the shoulder and biceps. The piece which caught reporters’ attention outside the Regency was mid-blue wool, with contrasting navy and beige checks. The Guardian compared it to a used car dealer’s outfit, perhaps because they didn’t want the inevitable headache that would come from voicing the other connotation: the wise guys of organised crime.
Isaia makes much of its heritage. Tailoring in southern Italy is different in tone to its British progenitors for environmental reasons: the weather, of course; the poverty of Naples compared to the immense concentration of capital in Mayfair; but there are also differences in the way in which people walk, greet one another and express their feelings. In their marketing, Isaia pushes the image of the charming, dangerous Neapolitan rake as far as possible. A new water-resistant dinner jacket is ideal ‘if a cocktail is thrown in your face.’ A motorcycle helmet with a scratchy drawing of St. Januarius is ‘a playful invitation to respect the law’ while riding your Vespa. On Isaia’s website, a cartoon of CEO Gianluca Isaia named Corallino offers a ‘phrasebook’ of Napulitano gestures: Damme nu vasillo (‘Give me a kiss’); Te faccio nu mazzo tanto! (‘I’m going to whip your ass!’). Helpfully for internet warriors affiliated with the President, Tiene’e ccorna! (‘You are a cuckold!’). Less helpful: Addereto ’e cancielle (‘In jail’). These add up to a parody of Italian masculinity: passionate, aggressive and possibly criminal.
Yet Isaia’s marketing is knowingly ironised by slapstick and exaggeration. A 2015 campaign by photographer Lady Tarin features a man in a double-breasted jacket, cradling between his sweeping lapels a squirming baby who has seized this moment to empty his bladder. Another poster shows a suited model in the confession booth, opposite a despairing priest. The Fall/Winter 2014 lookbook begins as a paean to Italian gastronomy, alternating shots of a restaurant kitchen with flannel jackets, overcoats and three-piece suits. But the cliché cannot hold. The models who are supposed to be appreciating the cooking interfere with it. During the meal, the elder man steals spaghetti from the horrified younger, scooping it up with his bare hands. In a postprandial shot, the pair get through twelve espressos, piling up cups and spilling coffee. This tableau of the Italian spirit veers into visual comedy, and the models and writers are in on the joke.
The irony seems lost on Cohen. Recognising his jackets, I remember thinking that he was taking the fun out of one of the few luxury tailoring brands with a sense of humour. The photos from the Regency depict an unlikely balance between corporate America and real estate mavericks: Jerry Rotonda, a Deutsche Bank executive, sits at the back in monochrome suit and tie; Rotem Rosen, a property developer, sits to Cohen’s left wearing a bright blue jacket (one sleeve button left open, of course), jeans and monkstraps. Wits on Twitter were quick to compare them to images of the key players in The Sopranos, hunched outside Satriale’s Pork Store. The implication was not that Cohen was a gangster, but that he played one on TV. If he never breaks character, it might be because, like many who came slouching towards Washington after the inauguration, he has become part of the show, but doesn’t think he’s acting.
Alexander Freeling is a writer, teacher and critic.
See: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/05/business/michael-cohen-lawyer-trump.html ↩
See: https://medium.com/@whileseated/michael-cohen-cigar-pictures-51807588b854 ↩
See: https://www.esquire.com/style/a12526/hart-schaffner-marx-obama-suits-012612/and https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/11/fashion/hillary-clinton-ralph-lauren.html ↩
See: https://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/23/us/politics/23palin.html ↩
See: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/31/us/politics/paul-manafort-luxury-shopping.html ↩
Trump’s suits are made by Brioni. Manafort’s may have come from House of Bijan in Beverly Hills, and were expensive enough to be considered evidence by the FBI during a raid of his property. See: http://nationalpost.com/news/world/manafort-has-a-thing-for-suits-so-expensive-that-fbi-agents-photographed-them-during-raid ↩
See: https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2018/4/11/17218010/michael-cohen-raid-fbi-trump-mueller-explained ↩